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Oboena is one of the largest specialist operators in the naturist holiday market. Paul Rouse talks to Frank Jacobs, the man at the helm.
There is sometimes a received wisdom attached to the naturist travel industry, namely that a lot of people involved in it are often little more than enthusiastic amateurs: small-scale companies perhaps, promoting a handful of their favourite holiday destinations; ‘ageing hippy’ retreat owners who have stopped the world to get off; or ‘place in the sun’ expatriates running modest guest houses and B&Bs - all often with no formal qualifications or previous experience in the travel industry, and content with businesses that tick over and which enable them primarily to share their love of the naked lifestyle with other like-minded souls.
At the other end of the spectrum however are companies like Oboena Naturist Holidays: large, professional concerns with impressive track records, offering a wide range of options and a one-stop-shop service to thousands of consumers - who just happen to prefer spending as much of their holiday as they can without the encumbrance of clothes.
Keen to dispel some other myths surrounding naked travel, Oboena’s managing director, Frank Jacobs, goes as far as to say that he believes the “old-style” naturist traveller - the back-to-basics type who cares little for creature comforts as long as they can be naked for the duration of their holiday, and it doesn’t cost them too much - is almost extinct. “There are so many varieties of naked holidays nowadays that each individual can chose what he likes and what he wants,” says Frank. “Other than the fact that they are naked, our belief is that the naturist consumer is not really any different to the clothed one: naturists are the same as any other tourists in that they are looking for opportunities to enjoy themselves on vacation, not just on the beach but by participating in special events, entertainment, sports, leisure activities and so on. Tourism overall is changing, and within the naturist market, we are witnessing the same trends - much higher demand for short-term vacations, high quality facilities and services, and plenty to see and do.”
Oboena should certainly be in a position to judge, as it has recently celebrated 50 years of offering naturist holidays, and currently has over 90 destinations to choose from in Europe, the USA, Mexico and the Caribbean, including campgrounds, apartments, hotels, resorts and cruises. The company was set up in 1966, taking its name from its founder, Otto Boecher, and its location, the spa town of Bad Nauheim just outside Frankfurt, where it is still based. From modest beginnings organising naturist holidays in Germany, it began expanding into more sunnier climes, particularly the then-Yugoslavia, and now offers holidays and associated travel services in a wide range of naturist-friendly destinations including France, Spain, Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Italy and the Americas, as well as nude cruises in the Mediterranean and Pacific.
Stuttgart-born Frank began his career in hospitality and tourism with an apprenticeship in hotel management in his home city, followed by a degree in Tourism Management and a year in the USA working for Marriott, before returning to Germany in 1990, spending several years in senior financial and management positions for American Express and Dell. “In 2014,” he explains, “I was approached by Oboena with a brief to help the owners get a better picture about their financial situation and future growth. After a thorough analysis, they asked me to step in as Chief Financial Officer. Three months later, they made me Managing Director.”
Frank therefore went full circle, back into the tourism industry where he first started. The same could be said for his experience of naturism. “From a young age, as is quite common in Germany, I was used to swimming and sunbathing nude. My family had apartments which were next to a nudist beach in the north of Germany, where we spent our holidays each year, so it has never seemed unusual to me. Quite the opposite in fact.”
Not everybody is comfortable with being naked in public of course, but Oboena believes that naturism is far from being a tiny niche. “The naturist market is expanding,” argues Frank, “and more people, especially in Germany and some of the other more liberal countries in Europe, are spending more of their leisure time naked: in saunas, swimming in thermal baths or in rivers, lakes and the sea, sunbathing in city parks or on the beach, and taking part in sports and other activities, whether close to home with friends or in a club environment - walking and hiking tours, bike rides, volleyball, golf, tennis, petanque, horseback riding and so on. From there, it’s a natural progression to spending your entire vacation in a naturist resort, hotel, apartment complex, campground or even on a ship.”
Oboena’s range of services is expanding in tandem, and in addition to package tours and more tailored vacation planning, now also offers group travel and even naturist weddings on Lanzarote, where the group owns its own resort, Castillo de Papagayo in Charco del Palo.
Frank however considers one of Oboena’s main assets to be its staff. “We pride ourselves on the professionalism of our multilingual, well informed and well trained personnel, and - given the vast choice we offer - our product knowledge and flexibility, allowing customers to choose and book their favourite destinations and secure the best spots in the resorts from our allocations.”
Frank adds that Oboena also chooses its partners very carefully, to ensure the company offers the best possible service and quality for guests. “We regularly visit the resorts, hotels and other venues we list, and offer our impressions - from personal experience and customer feedback - to ensure quality is maintained and that all our information and descriptions are correct and up to date.”
And the next 50 years?
“I’d like to think the company will still be around,” laughs Frank, “even though I might not be. The world is opening up, and there will be more and more destinations available for naturist travel. The onus is on us to help them showcase the opportunities for people who enjoy the pleasure of living the naturist way.”